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State tests: At least 5 radioactive materials, plus PFAS, in water at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station

 Seth Pickering, a deputy regional director at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, discussed the results of Pilgrim water testing during a meeting Monday of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.
Jennette Barnes
Seth Pickering, a deputy regional director at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, discussed the results of state water testing at Pilgrim during a meeting Monday of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

State water testing shows at least five radioactive materials in the water at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, plus PFAS chemicals and other non-radiological contaminants.

The Department of Public Health and Department of Environmental Protection released the much-anticipated results yesterday from samples collected April 5.

The water has been under scrutiny because Pilgrim owner Holtec has proposed discharging about 1 million gallons of water from the plant into Cape Cod Bay as part of the decommissioning of the closed facility.

The water would be released after treatment, and the water has not yet been treated. But not everything can be filtered out.

In an afternoon press briefing, officials from the two agencies said nothing surprised them about the contents of the water.

Results from the Department of Public Health testing show the water inside the reactor building contains tritium, which has been the subject of community concern because it cannot be removed. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen and emits beta radiation.

The agency said the water also contains four “principle” gamma radiation emitters: manganese-54, cobalt-60, zinc-65, and cesium-137.

The testing did not include a radionuclide of particular health concern, strontium-90.

Strontium-90 requires more in-depth testing. A DPH official said such testing was not performed because the water has not yet been treated. But according to DPH, other radionuclides are considered indicators of the possible presence of strontium-90, and those were not detected in the sample.

The Department of Public Health conducted the radiological testing at the Massachusetts Environmental Radiation Laboratory. Testing for non-radiological materials was led by the Department of Environmental Protection, which contracted with Gel Laboratories of South Carolina to run the tests.

Yesterday evening, Seth Pickering, a deputy regional director at DEP, briefly discussed the results at a meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

Pickering said water data provided by Holtec are reasonably consistent with the state’s.

“The analytical results for the samples collected by Mass DEP and DPH compare within expected ranges to the analytical results for the samples that were collected by Holtec, indicating that the two sets of samples are acceptable split samples, or duplicates,” he said.

Water samples taken April 5 were split between Holtec and the state to provide a check on the accuracy of Holtec’s testing.

The testing also provides baseline knowledge of what should be removed from the water.

The Department of Public Health said much of the radioactive material — though not all — can be removed. But tritium cannot.

And the starting levels in the Pilgrim water are high compared to background levels in the ocean, according to Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has studied the fate of radioactivity in the ocean.

The cesium-137 at Pilgrim, for example, is 200 million times higher than the level in Cape Cod Bay, he said. And the numbers for tritium exceed seawater by a factor of a million.

“All this implies that, yes, they will need extensive cleanup, and then a reassessment of what they intend to release,” he said in an interview.

With regard to the per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a state environmental official said they can be removed readily with carbon filtration.

But opponents of the proposed discharge say the details of what’s in the water are less important to the fate of the radioactive water at Pilgrim than the state Ocean Sanctuaries Act. They argue that the law prohibits new discharges of industrial waste into Cape Cod Bay, with narrow exceptions that don’t apply to Pilgrim.

Last month, lawyers for the Association to Preserve Cape Cod made a detailed legal argument to that effect in a 10-page letter to the state.

The group’s executive director, Andrew Gottlieb, said yesterday that the Ocean Sanctuaries Act places a blanket ban on new discharges, with no need to demonstrate harm or impact.

“The data is interesting but immaterial to the decision the state must make, by law, to reject this permit application,” he said.

State and federal officials are reviewing applications from Holtec to modify its water-discharge permits in a way that Holtec believes will allow it to release the water into Cape Cod Bay.

Gov. Maura Healey’s administration has repeatedly expressed “concern” about the proposal in written statements to the media.

Asked yesterday whether the administration views the Ocean Sanctuaries Act as applicable in this case, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs spokesperson Maria Hardiman said the administration has “serious concerns” about the plan.

“The state will review the application in light of all applicable state laws and regulations,” she said in an email. “We applaud the strong community engagement on this issue, and the community’s concerns will be front-of-mind as the state reviews Holtec’s applications.”

During a campaign stop in Dennis last June, then-attorney general Maura Healey told CAI that Holtec would not be allowed to discharge radioactive water on her watch.

“We’ve come a long way on this issue, and I’ll be damn sure, in whatever capacity I serve, that we’re not going to have radioactive waste dumped down here,” she said.

At yesterday’s meeting, state officials did not discuss the specific levels of radioactive materials in the water, or list all those detected.

Elaine Dickinson of Harwich said she came to the meeting looking for more.

“I thought they would have had something up there that we could have looked at, and take pictures of, and fully understood,” she said. “I'm trying to find it on my phone. Where's the report? I want to see the report.”

Summaries issued by the Department of Public Health and Department of Environmental Protection are posted below.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.